The Battle of Antietam: an interview with Tom Vossler

Colonel Tom Vossler has long been the lead historian of Diamond6 TVossler_Headshot_2016Leadership. He has taken many of our groups through various Civil War battlefields, providing a historical playing field in which to discuss important leadership lessons.

In the past he has teamed up with Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University, to write a history of the Battle of Gettysburg—A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. They have a1rjerl95mlcome together once again to write A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

Diamond6 sat down with Col. Vossler to discuss Antietam, its place in Civil War history, and its leadership lessons. September 17 will be the battle’s 154th anniversary.

Why is Antietam important in the context of the Civil War?

This campaign, this battle, is part of a larger picture called the Maryland Campaign of 1862. There has been a string of Confederate victories as they cross the Potomac to begin this new campaign. What is also important to note is that while the Maryland Campaign is being fought, out west there’s a Confederate campaign for the invasion of Kentucky.

These are two simultaneous Confederate advances into two border states, Kentucky and Maryland. From a political and military strategic standpoint, we must remember that President Lincoln said he must have Kentucky or else he would lose its support.

This battle forces the Confederacy back, which is why this battle is so important. The incursion into the border states is turned back by Union forces.

What are four key moments that turn the tide in this battle?

First, this battle takes place on September 17, following the South Mountain battles, which really disrupted Lee’s plans to invade Pennsylvania. He doesn’t make it that far. Meanwhile, General McClellan, the Union commander, could’ve attacked on September 16, but delayed one full day to get his forces ready. But if you flip that coin, that affords Lee another 24 hours in which to get his forces to the battlefield.

The second moment also has to do with McClellan. During the battle, there is an opportunity for him to commit his reserves to a weak point in the Confederate line, but he hesitates and then doesn’t follow through. He fears if he commits his reserve forces, he won’t have any later. That could have split the Confederate defense. Instead it stays in place and frustrates his movements.

The third key moment is the failure of General Ambrose Burnside to make his attack across the lower bridge. There are three bridges—the upper, the middle, the lower—and his forces were at the lower bridge. He had repeated orders to get across the Antietam to attack the Confederate force on the other side of the creek. He delays, and his delay eats up several hours in the battle. This then ties into that fourth moment.

Number four is the timely arrival of an entire Confederate division commanded by General A.P. Hill. They have forced march from Harper’s Ferry, which the Confederates had captured earlier, and arrived on the battlefield just in time to turn back the advance of the Burnside’s 9th Corps.

There is no clear victor in this. From a larger overview, a strategic and operational overview, what is gained is that Lee’s army is forced out of Maryland and the Potomac River Line is restored.

After the battle, what changes do we see in the Union and Confederate leadership?

In the days and weeks after the battle, President Lincoln goes to Antietam to inquire of General McClellan why he has not followed Lee across the river into Virginia. McClellan essentially sits there with his command. He does not go after Lee, and this frustrates President Lincoln. The end result of McClellan’s delay is Lincoln relieves him of command and appoints a new commander. This leads to a continual roll over of leadership. By the time we get to Gettysburg, none of the higher level Union leadership remains.

The same thing happens in the Confederate Army. They lose a number of key leaders when they reorganize the army. They reorganize in a positive way. The replacement of the leadership leads to a slew of powerful victories.

The leadership question is what fascinates me most about Antietam—figuring out where the leaders who were at Gettysburg were at Antietam.

How then does this battle relate to today’s leaders?

What we’re talking about is the growth of leaders and the sorting out of those less capable. They’re not rising to the top anymore. They’re staying in the same position or getting washed out of the organization. The leadership over time gets better. You can watch this happen from First Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War, as they progress through the war.

For today’s leaders that translates into organizational effectiveness, whether we’re talking about a school district or a corporation. At Diamond6, we’re striving to make them effective organizations through the development of their leadership. These leaders in the army, like in any organization, wherever they are they’re being developed and creating a succession of command. Every organization must think about what they’re doing to allow their leadership to mature and grow. That concept is thoroughly explored at Antietam.

Click here to purchase A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

 

Learning Leadership Lessons from History

Many of you are very familiar with the Diamond6 approach in which we use historical events as case studies to learn lessons from history. All the events we consider were “crises” for the leaders involved whether they are battles, emergencies in outer space, or political catastrophes. Each of them demonstrates that during a crisis the pressure of rapidly unfolding events compresses time. Consequently, the importance of the decisions made by leaders (both good or bad) during these trying times are much more stark and can be examined to enhance the learning experience. In each case study we carefully consider the evolution of the events of the “crisis” guided by a historical expert. As we move through the historical discussion we pause to examine what leadership principles and concepts are illustrated. Over time we have developed experiential learning seminars that use the battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, and Bull Run from the American Civil War and walk the actual fields for the maximum educational experience.

Diamond6 has also created seminars using more recent events such as the Apollo 13 crisis and the so-called Saturday Night Massacre from the Watergate crisis. These seminars can be offered anywhere. Still in order to maximize the learning experience we facilitated the Apollo 13 case study aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. It was a recovery ship for the Apollo program and is now a floating museum in San Francisco harbor. We recently conducted the Saturday Night Massacre seminar for the third time at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.

We continue to expand the historical sites and crises that we believe can be invaluable to learning leadership. We have now developed a seminar using the attack on Pearl Harbor and will be working with the Pearl Harbor Institute in Honolulu to conduct this using various sites on the island of Oahu. Finally, we are finished developing a leadership seminar that will use the Battle of the Alamo as a case study and have conducted this seminar twice over the past few months.

But we have also wanted to be able to offer more of our experiential learning seminars at any location. In December we took a very important first step in that direction. We conducted for the first time what we call Gettysburg on the Road for the leadership team at the Huntington Beach School District in California. Through the use of maps and video we were able to recreate in a classroom in California the experience of actually walking the fields of Gettysburg in order to achieve the same learning experience. It was an amazing success, and we will be doing this again in Baton Rouge, Louisiana later this year.

Still some might say that this continues to beg the question “can you use historical events to learn about leadership?” In a famous essay written in the middle of the 20th century the British historian Liddell Hart argued that the object of history is “truth.” To find out what happened during a particular event and why it happened in order to ascertain causal relationships between it and other events as well as the connection between decisions and actions.

The Center for Creative Leadership used a concept called “Action Learning.” They argue that people learn 70 percent from experiences that they have, 20 percent from interaction with others, and 10 percent from training. We believe our experience over the past decade with experiential leadership seminars confirms this analysis. Furthermore, this also serves to underscore the importance of Kolb’s model for experiential learning, which has four steps. First, learning for each of us begins with concrete experiences that serve as opportunities to gather new “data.” Second, this is followed by reflective observation and “digestion” of the experience. Third, new knowledge for the student is then created by abstract conceptualization that takes into account not only the immediate event but also other experiences from their respective careers. Finally, the student must conduct active experimentation or “testing” of the new knowledge. This is why we continue to strongly recommend a follow-up discussion roughly 90 days after any experiential leadership seminar in order to discuss whether or not participants have been successful in applying what they have learned.

But we must admit that this is in many ways not a new approach. The Greek historian Polybius observed, “There are two roads to the reformation of mankind – one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful…the knowledge gained from the study of history is the best of all education for practical life.”

With this sound ancient advice Diamond6 will continue to expand its experiential leadership seminar offerings to the widest audience possible.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.

Leadership Lessons of “Triage”

September marked the 150th anniversary of what is arguably the most decisive battle during the American Civil War – Antietam.  Many historians might contest this point and suggest that Gettysburg was the “high watermark of the Confederacy”.  Still a Union defeat at Antietam would have further delayed Lincoln’s decision to announce the Emancipation Proclamation which redefined the purpose of the war.  It could have also encouraged Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation that could have led to their intervention.  Finally, another Federal defeat in September 1862 would have further inspired those in the North who opposed the war to greater success in that fall’s congressional and state elections.  Sadly, Antietam holds an even greater distinction in American history.  It was the bloodiest single day in the American Civil War.  Over 25,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in one day of fighting.

But historically wars also have encouraged innovation and the need for leaders to deal with new and frequently enormous problems.  The mass casualties suffered by both sides resulted in rapid advances not only in medicine but also the management and treatment of these huge numbers.  For example, it was during the Battle of Antietam that a young woman from Washington, Clara Barton, would appear with a wagon of supplies to treat the wounded.  Her efforts during the remainder of the war would eventually result in the creation of the American Red Cross.

It was also at about this time that a young Union Army Captain, Jonathan Letterman, would begin to ponder how to deal with this “wicked problem”.  Letterman would convince the Union Army leadership to assign a doctor to each regiment, organize medical teams that were the advent of today’s medics, and invent the field ambulance.   He also formulated a new method for dealing with mass casualties known as “triage” that General Omar Bradley, the famous World War II commander, would later describe as the greatest innovation in military medicine.

Letterman argued that military doctors and aid workers must be trained to quickly assess the extent of a soldier’s injuries and “triage” or classify the wounded into three groups.  First, were those so badly wounded that they were deemed terminal with no hope of recovery.  These were managed by chaplains and nurses who could make them as comfortable as possible.  Second, were wounded whose treatment could be delayed.  They might require some immediate treatment to stem the bleeding, but this could be handled by nurses or medical orderlies.  Third, the soldiers with injuries that if they were immediately addressed had a good chance of survival.  They were moved quickly surgery and the immediate attention of the available doctors.

“Triage” saved countless lives during the Civil War and in conflicts ever since.  But it is also a concept that leaders can apply as they deal with a mounting number of problems that clog their inbox on a daily basis.  Leaders must quickly scan their email or office inbox and ask themselves the following questions:

  • First:  Which problems are terminal or have been overcome by events?  There still may be issues of so-called “consequence management”, that may need to be confronted, but these can often be handled by others in the organization.
  • Second:  Which problems can be delayed or deferred?  We sometimes need to consider whether a problem is “ripe”?  Is it time to deal with it or should we let it evolve?  Can others in the organization deal with this problem which will both free up critical time for senior leaders (like the few doctors at Antietam) and allow subordinates an opportunity to both better develop their potential and confidence?
  • Third:  Is this an issue that demands the immediate attention of senior leaders?   Does this problem directly affect the essence of our organization, or is this an opportunity that the organization cannot fail to miss?

Making this calculation is invaluable to leaders.  It further forces them to understand that some problems are “wicked problems” like mass casualties during the American Civil War.  These are those challenges that are probably never “solved” but are “managed”.  For example, our national leaders will likely never solve the threat posed by AIDS, poverty, world hunger, etc.  But the importance of these problems demands every effort to “manage” them as effectively as possible and move us in the direction of a long term solution.  Every organization has such problems that will unlikely be “solved” at least during the term of the current leadership, but they must be “managed”.  Failing to do so can have dramatic consequences just as it did on the.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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